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Innovate Alabama marks progress, looks ahead

Innovate Alabama marked several key accomplishments last week during a celebratory event in Birmingham and also looked ahead to future initiatives aimed at attracting and retaining business and technology investments across the state.

A public-private economic development organization, Innovate Alabama was established in 2021 as a successor to the now disbanded Innovation Commission, and focuses on economic development through three core pillars: developing talent, expanding access to resources for entrepreneurs and improving the state’s lifestyle and recreation options.

Among the key speakers at the event was former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a member of the original Innovation Commission, who spoke with Capitol Journal’s Todd Stacy about the potential for Alabama to become a national hub for business and development, as well as the importance of Innovate Alabama’s work.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (left) sits next to State Finance Director Bill Poole during an Innovate Alabama event in Birmingham. (Photo courtesy of Champ Creative)

“This is a place that has tremendous engineering talent – for instance, in Huntsville – or tremendous biotech (talent) at the University of Alabama Birmingham, so the talent is here on the research and innovation side,” Rice said. 

“(This is about) organizing the entire ecosystem around that so that K-12 education is producing kids who can do STEM work when they go to college, so the universities are training the students but keeping them here in Alabama, and those skills are going to keep changing over time; the skills of 2023 are not going to be the skills of even 2026, so you have to keep training people and up-scaling them.”

Rice’s interview will air Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday at noon on Alabama Public Television.

Incentivizing business investment and improving talent retention have been a major priority for Alabama lawmakers in recent years, with the Legislature passing Gov. Kay Ivey’s economic incentive bill package known as “The Game Plan” earlier this year. 

Innovate Alabama, which not only has issued a number of business grant awards this year, but recently finalized a plan to dole out an additional $97.9 million in grants to small businesses in 2024.

“Alabama’s future is shaped by innovation and entrepreneurship, and Innovate Alabama embodies our dedication to fostering an environment where those values are recognized and rewarded,” Ivey said. “The continued success of Innovate Alabama serves as a testament to our state’s potential, propelling us forward as a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship.”

When asked what she considered to be Innovate Alabama’s biggest accomplishments so far, Cynthia Crutchfield, CEO of Innovate Alabama, named the establishment of a new tax credit program, the creation of a new innovation network that connects education institutions and organizations, and the finalization of the $97.9 million grant program as the most “significant accomplishments for the team.”

Furthermore, Crutchfield noted the importance of pursuing Innovate Alabama’s third core pillar – improving the state’s lifestyle and recreation options – in 2024.

“I didn’t originally connect outdoor recreation with innovation, but I think if you look at it from the lens of talent attraction and retention, it actually does start to make sense,” she told Stacy. “Entrepreneurs, students, they don’t want to just go to work and do their 9-to-5, they want to become a part of the community and really enjoy the resources that we have in this state, so it really is a natural fit.”

The event saw both Republican and Democratic lawmakers celebrate the progress Innovate Alabama, as well as other state initiatives have made on the economic development front. To such policies’ bi-partisan support, Senate Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said incentivizing economic growth transcended typical partisan divides.

“I think it’s important to all of the legislative members because it’s so important to Alabama,” Reed told Stacy. 

“There’s a lot of things that we’ll disagree on, we’ll have legislative topics that the Republicans don’t agree with the Republicans a lot of times, or certainly the Republicans and the Democrats, and that’s fine, but when it comes to economic development, that impacts every legislator, it impacts every person in Alabama.”

Rice, who served as Secretary of State under President George Bush, was praised by nearly all speakers for her contributions to economic development in the state for her time on the Innovation Commission. As to why she felt compelled to help, she told Stacy that Alabama, her home state, would always remain “so important in my life.”

“I left as a child, but my parents were born here, my grandparents, and so I feel I’m honoring them in some way by helping Alabama to become even better than it is,” she said.

“It was the place that I grew up, it was a place that was very different when I grew up here in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. It also is just evidence of how different a place can be and how it can move forward, and so for all of those reasons, I’m just excited to be a part of this effort.”

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